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The history of the Serenity Prayer

I was thinking about the Serenity Prayer this morning when I woke up. Don’t know why. As a result of that, I decided to look up the history of the prayer. I went to Wiktionary and Wikipedia.org for all information here. I’ll put my own thoughts outside of the blockquotes.

The way I know the prayer goes like this:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.

The Serenity Prayer is the common name for an originally untitled prayer written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s or early 1940s.

Niebuhr seems to have written the prayer for use in a sermon, perhaps as early as 1934 (the date given in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 16th edn., ed. Justin Kaplan, 1992, p. 684), perhaps in the early 1940s.

Elisabeth Sifton’s book The Serenity Prayer (2003) quotes this version as the authentic original:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

The earliest verifiable printed texts so far discovered are an approximate (apparently remembered) version in a query in the “Queries and Answers” column in The New York Times Book Review, July 12, 1942, p. 23, which asks for the author of the quotation; and an answer to in the same column, in the issue for August 2, 1942, p. 19, where the quotation is attributed to Niebuhr and an unidentified earlier printed text is quoted as follows:

O God and Heavenly Father,
Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed; the courage to change that which can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

This is very interesting. This is part of the history of the Prayer that I never knew. I knew who was credited with writing it, but I did not know about the different versions as stated above.

The prayer became widely known when it was adopted in modified form by Alcoholics Anonymous; an AA magazine, The AA Grapevine, identified Niebuhr as the author (January 1950, pp. 6-7), and the AA web site continues to identify Niebuhr as the author (see External Links).

The prayer is reliably reported to have been in use in Alcoholics Anonymous since the early 1940s. It has also been used in Narcotics Anonymous and other Twelve-step programs. The Alcoholics Anonymous version omits some of Niebuhr’s text:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

This is where I know of it from. Not AA but GA. It’s interesting to read all of this history about it.

I also decided to look up the three main words of the prayer. The ones that I focus on when I’m reciting the prayer after a meeting.

Serenity:
1. The state of being serene.
2. A lack of agitation or disturbance.
3. A title given to a reigning prince or similar dignitary.

Courage:
1. the quality of a confident character not to be afraid or intimidated easily but without being incautious or inconsiderate
2. the ability to do things which one finds frightening

Wisdom:
1. An element of personal character that enables one to distinguish the wise from the unwise.
2. A piece of wise advice.
3. The discretionary use of knowledge for the greatest good.
4. The ability to apply relevant knowledge in an insightful way, especially to different situations from that in which the knowledge was gained.
5. The ability to make a decision based on the combination of knowledge, experience, and intuitive understanding.
6. (theology) The ability to know and apply spiritual truths.

Interesting stuff if you ask me.

Until next time…

3 Responses to “The history of the Serenity Prayer”

  • countrylady says:

    That prayer or quote set on my dresser by my bed during my chemo and kept me going now I have three or four sitting or hanging around my house it is something good to have around kinda funny I was thinking about putting it on my blog and then you did hope everyone reads it every day

  • Fantastagirl says:

    I love that prayer – I say it daily because without it, I might deck someone, or worse.

  • jblair says:

    AA historians have determined that the conclusive source of the Serenity Prayer is still NOT known.
    It was first picked up by some AAs from a New York newspaper obituary.